Anna Hazares fast 2.0 is underway and the revised deadline for the passing of the Jan Lokpal bill is August 30. Anna has declared that he will not move from Ramilia Maidan unless his version of the bill is passed. With rising popular support for Anna's movement and the threat of launching the jail bharo andolan if the deadline is not met, it is to be seen whether the government would once again buckle under pressure and enter into a formal dialogue with Team Anna on the provisions of the bill. In this brouhaha we must note that a parliamentary standing committee comprising of 25 MPs representing different parties have already started deliberating on the Lokpal bill.
The Parliamentary process
Subsequent to the introduction of the Lokpal bill in the Parliament (for the 9th time in 4 decades) on August 4, it was referred to the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice. Soon afterwards, the standing committee headed by Dr.Abhishek Manu Singhvi (Congress), invited Anna and his team to present their views on the government draft. However, in the meeting, which they later stated as being a mere formality, Team Anna rejected the government draft and demanded another Lokpal bill to be discussed.
Last Saturday, the standing committee invited comments and suggestions from the general public on the Lokpal bill. This would allow alternate views on the Lokpal bill to be considered by the standing committee. The process of consultation at the standing committee level has, many a time, had a huge influence in the law making process. The RTI bill presented by the government was amended 153 times due to the intervention by the standing committee.
Meanwhile, Team Annas Jan Lokpal bill made its way into the Parliament with Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar submitting it for introduction as a private members bill. BJP MP Varun Gandhi has also stated his desire of introducing the same bill as a private member's bill in Parliament. Meanwhile Congress MP Praveen Singh Aron has submitted the Jan Lokpal bill to the standing committee for consideration. So even if Annas demands are not met, the oppurtunity for discussing the Jan Lokpal bill in the Parliament and standing committee remains.
However, Team Annas scepticism of the parliamentary process is not unfounded. For this is not the first time a Lokpal bill is going to a standing committee for discussions. Of the 8 times the Lokpal bill was introduced in Parliament, it went before a parliamentary committee 6 times. And 4 of those times, it even came up with its report. And still 42 years after a Lokpal bill was passed by the Lok Sabha, we dont have a Lokpal. (The bill passed in 1969 lapsed as the house dissolved without Rajya Sabha passing it). So it would be fair to say that Parliament has over the years failed us on the issue of creating an anti-corruption ombudsman.
The difference this time
But this time its going to be different. There is too much pressure - from opposition, media, and people at large, for the standing committee and Parliament to sit over the bill and let it lapse. The standing committee has been given a period of 3 months to come up with its report. So the Lokpal bill, will in all probability, be up for discussion and passing in the winter session. And if a consensus is reached across party lines, we can expect a strong Lokpal bill to be passed in the same session.
And Lokpal is not an issue like 2G scam where a BJP-Congress slugfest would result in the rejection of the chairpersons report by majority of the members of the committee. The standing committee report which is to be tabled in the parliament is bound to have suggestions that make the Lokpal stronger, but perhaps not in the way Anna and co. envisioned. The standing committee report once tabled will be debated and discussed by the Parliament which would give the final shape to the bill.
A multi-pronged approach
Beyond the governments toothless version and Team Anna's Lokpal-on-steroids version, is a third option, also coming for the civil society. Noted social activist Aruna Roy and her friends in the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) have come up with an alternative. By a basket of measures to be brought in by multiple legislations, 5 different lokpals for different subject matters are sought to be created - One each for Anti-corruption, CVC, Judicial Accountability, Public grievances and Whistleblower protection.
Under this scheme, the national anti-corruption Lokpal would cover the Ministers of the central and state governments, MPs, MLAs, and higher bureaucracy. PM is included within its ambit but only after a full bench of the Lokpal and a full bench of the Supreme Court are of the opinion that there is enough evidence for the Lokpal to investigate. Corruption in the middle and lower bureaucracy is to be tackled by a more independent and empowered Central Vigilance Commission whereas public grievances on service delivery is to be addressed by a decentralized Grievance Redressal Commission. Separate legislations are to address judicial accountability and whistleblowers protection.
Since these recommendations seem more practicable and in conformity with Indias constitutional and administrative scheme, many of NCPRI's demands are likely to be seriously considered by the standing committee. The same standing committee had tabled its report on the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosures Bill (known as the Whistleblowers Protection Bill) in the present parliamentary session. Beyond giving protection to activists, its pertinent to note that the report suggested the creation of a mechanism that will receive complaints concerning corruption by public servants including those in the higher judiciary, armed forces, intelligence agencies and ministers.
The standing committee is also discussing the Judicial Standards and Accountability bill which lays down standards for the conduct of judges and establishes a mechanism whereby people can complain against the misbehaviour of judges. Whistleblowers protection and corruption in higher judiciary are subjects covered in the Jan Lokpal bill that is absent in the government version. By providing multiple legislations, the approach seems to be that of having different mechanisms to deal with corruption instead of having one single all-powerful-Lokpal as envisaged by the Anna Hazare group.
In his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also said that the government has no magic wand and there is no single big step that can eradicate corruption. The PM stated that the government will act simultaneously on many fronts and introduce many bills including a Lokpal bill, a Judicial Accountability bill, a public procurement legislation which checks government contracts and purchases and a legislation which would monitor the work of regulatory authorities to make them more accountable. He also promised that the government will put an end to discretionary powers in allocation of resources and grant of clearances.
Hazare climate will ensure Lokpal without too much delay
So it looks like the jan lokpal bill, however successful the fast turns out to be, is heading to its eventual death. Suggestions like those of the NCPRI made before the standing committee would have more takers. BJPs Arun Jaitley has also stated that the party wants the PM, except in cases of defence and national security, to be covered by the Lokpal while keeping the judiciary out. The provisions of the final Lokpal bill is hence likely to be something in between the current government draft and the views of political parties and groups like NCPRI generated in the standing committee. This means that Judiciary, lower-ranked bureaucracy and whistleblower protection would be out of the Lokpals ambit while PM would come in with necessary protections.
Beyond the NCPRI, other alternatives might emerge at the standing committee. A major opposition Singhvi might face in the committee is from an unlikely source - his fellow Congress spokesperson, Manish Tewari. Tewaris point is simple. The very need for bringing a Lokpal is due to the lack of independence in the existing investigative agencies. So the need of the hour is to give statutory basis to agencies like the CBI so that they are empowered to act independently and not as per the whims of the government. Tewari had earlier introduced a private members bill in the Lok Sabha to regulate the functioning and use of power by intelligence agencies.
The climate created by the Anna Hazare group and the support movement has made sure that the nation will have a Lokpal without too much delay. Ultimately the government and the opposition parties would take credit and pat themselves on the back for enacting a strong Lokpal bill. Ironically Team Anna probably will once again reject the bill, hold demonstrations against it, perhaps burn it, but hopefully will not fast for a third time.
Will the Lokpal which we eventually get be strong enough to deal with the rampant corruption that is so engrained in our system? More laws tackling other forms of corruption are on the anvil. But more than any law, it would be the persons manning these independent authorities that will determine how effective the institution will be.